Stigma has never been far from Rosemary Kasiva. In her case, you could call it quadruple stigma. She was brought up by a single mother in the sixties, brought up her own children as a single parent, watched her sister die of an AIDS-related illness, and today is the mother to an openly gay son, Leonard aka Mutisya.
Our meeting takes place in her son’s flat in a Nairobi suburb. The rainbow flag hangs limply in a corner. This was not the first time we had met. She had insisted that we meet at least once so that she could get to know me, and what I was after. She had good reason to mistrust the media in our society. Back to Rosemary. I was struck by how youthful she looks. Her spectacles sat squarely on her cappuccino coloured face. She wore a strong and somewhat serious face. She asked to make myself at home, and prepare whatever beverage I fancy. She’s been wanting to share her journey of being a parent of being an openly gay son. Especially following the recent ruling on the petition to decriminalize homosexual sex. She figured it was time to talk about her son, her first-born, the one she had when she was only 19.
Kasiva could possibly have been the only parent present at the High Court during the Repeal 162 case. I remember seeing her during the submissions and she was also among the throes of individuals who were present during the May 24th ruling. She wasn’t there for Leonard alone, she wasn’t there for the queer community alone either; she too had a stake in the judgement.
“I’m glad Leonard and I can talk openly about gay relationships, marriages and having children within the gay setting,” says Kasiva. “We share posts on everything and I sometimes question why I was so mad when he came out. This has been the best thing that has happened to both of us. There are no secrets we now relate honestly and openly.”
I know many other queer individuals who would love to hear their own parents utter those words. I know I would. There is acceptance, respect, and love in this home. Kasiva does not hide the deep love she has for Leonard and his siblings. But she is very protective of her children. Trust does not come easy to her. She has been hurt once to many times.
First, her sister. She tells me she wishes that when she had the same resolve to fight for her sister who died of an HIV-related illness the same way she now defends Leonard and his brothers.
“We faced stigma at the hospitals that I took my sister to. We were afraid then. When she died, who stood with us? No one,” she says. “I [wish I] would have made sure she would have gotten the best treatment and maybe she would have still been here. There was a lot of stigma and fear surrounding us. Now I am not willing to sacrifice any member of my family at the expense of the world.”
See where she is coming from?
We have the flat to ourselves, as both mother and son didn’t want to impede each other during the interview. Kasiva has her cup of chai, I’ve got my kahawa and for then, she gives me the precious gift of time. Time to re-open memories and remember her journey and subsequently, transformation.
Kasiva describes herself as a Nairobi hustler through and through. This city is her home. She was born in Pumwani Hospital, raised at the BAT Village in Bahati, in the Eastlands area and spent most of her adult life in Dagoretti, until recently when she migrated to Athi River. But she still commutes daily into the city for business and for church on Sunday. She had also made the trek into the city for this interview.
Kasiva beams with pride as she remembers how Leonard was a very smart child. He excelled academically both in primary and secondary school and earned himself a scholarship to study in Singapore and then the United States. She describes him as a gentle and obedient child. The ideal first born, though he suffered from a number of health challenges during his early childhood. She remembers he preferred playing with dolls more than cars or more ‘boys toys’. It was shocking at first but she opted to continue buying the toys that he preferred. She didn’t think much of it. It seemed like just a preference to her back then, something that didn’t warrant much fuss.
As she recalls Leonard’s formative years, there were little incidents here and there that hinted he was different, but she was dismissive of them. Like the time he had a close friend in primary school and during their Standard 8 exams, she came across success cards from this particular boy to Leonard. They had love hearts and affectionate messages. Leonard told her they were just friends.
However, it was not until many years later when Leonard was studying abroad did the matters of his orientation resurface. He had come back home for holiday from Singapore with a male friend and they went to the Maasai Mara together. While they were away, Leonard’s church friends came home to inquire on his whereabouts. When she told them that his away with a male friend, their reaction surprised her. She suspects that they knew Leonard was gay but she herself thought nothing of their interest in her son and his travel companion. To her, Leonard had just brought a friend who wanted to experience his friend’s home country.
It was not until 2010 when Leonard came home unexpectedly from the US, where he was studying at the time, that things did begin to unravel proper. His university had been in touch with her a few times before asking her to intervene as Leonard seemed to be struggling academically. Leonard was halfway through his studies at this time, but he didn’t seem committal about his return to America. There was always an excuse for the delay, until after he came out clean. She remembers him saying he was considering celibacy and informing his mother that he didn’t like girls, not in ‘that’ way.
“I hope you don’t like boys?” she remembers asking. His response to her was, “Unfortunately I do.” As she recalls this conversation, she falls back into the sofa. She remembers that the revelation was painful. She tells me that she fired her son with a barrage of questions and even threatened to beat him. She verbally abused him, berated him and expressed her disappointment. Some of the answers to her inquisition were greeted with silence, and some revealed the bitter truth. One such truth was that some of the individuals with whom Leonard had gay encounters were also within the church. Her church. Their church. The church where Leonard and his brothers served in ministry. The family church. The sense of betrayal from within and outside her home was immense. Did everyone but her know of her son’s sexuality, she asked herself. Had people within the church managed to ‘recruit’ her son, she wondered.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and as Rosemary reflects on that moment, she tells me she regrets her reaction and wishes she’d have acted better. She describes the family as close-knit and expresses disappointment that she had not created an environment for Leonard to come clean about his sexuality earlier.
It was also around this time, she says, that Leonard got involved in activism. This added fuel to her fire. She hated the gay community for having ‘recruited’ her son and also from detracting him from his studies in the US. She recalls how Leonard’s coming out may have affected his brothers, as she hints their grades slipped around this time due to the tension that had come out in the home. Pun intended.
An ultimatum was issued. She categorically told Leonard that he could only live in her house if she renounced his homosexuality. Then one day, he stepped out and never came back home. It was a harrowing six months that followed. There was no contact, nor knowledge of his whereabouts. Phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Some of these texts demanded that he came back home or else she was going to set the police on him. Leonard remained mteja all through this period.
“I lost so much weight during this time. Eventually, through my own networks and the rumour mill, I found out that Leonard was in Kisumu. I was on a matatu almost immediately once I got this news.” I’m astounded at the clarity at which she remembers things. She remembers it was a Prestige Shuttle that she travelled on. The two samosas and tea that she had for breakfast and the five hours she spent walking around Kisumu. She believed that Leonard was living as a street person and she was somehow convinced was going to meet someone, anyone, who would know him. Maybe he now went by the name of Mutisya. I must mention she had never been to Kisumu before and had presumed that is was the size of Machakos (it is much bigger). Her words, not mine.
She admits there was a mixture of naivety, bravery, and desperation during this expedition. The fact that Leonard was AWOL was a secret that was known only to her and her other two sons. Not even her mother – Leonard’s grandmother – knew. She wanted him back and still hoped he would resume his studies.
Kasiva was relentless in trying to contact Leonard. She kept on sending him messages. She endured numerous sleepless nights. She’d rack her brain, wondering what her son was doing in Kisumu, whether he was homeless, and what he is eating. There is nothing like a mother’s love.
“Mutisya’s grandmother used to ask about him and when he was going back to the US. The bishop of my church would ask the same. I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t know where he was. I had to lie to them. I kept on telling them he is taking a break so that he could work on a project.”
“There was a rumour already doing the rounds in the church that Leonard had been chased away from America because he was gay. I also started being blamed for making him gay. People were saying that it was my male friends who had abused Leonard, which is why he had turned out gay. There was so much hate!”
The wagging tongues and lack of support from her church led Kasiva to walk away from a place that she believed was a sanctuary. It didn’t end there. On the home front, Leonard’s siblings started questioning their mother on their elder brother’s whereabouts. “They started telling me, if I had not been angry with Leonard, he would not have run away.” Her voice now sounding pained.
The period of Leonard’s absence accorded her time to reflect and ask herself some hard questions. Questions that made her think about his sexuality, her love for him, and whether she was going to live a life worrying about other people’s opinions. Despite not being in communication with her first born, she religiously kept on sending him money. She was trying to reach out.
Kasiva looks at me squarely, tilts her head and with a seriousness in her eyes and tells me she prayed constantly for her son. Prayed for him to come back. She got her miracle when Leonard called her one day and informed her he was working in Kisumu. A reunion and homecoming were delicately agreed on. By this time, she had to come to terms with two things – Leonard’s sexuality and his decision to drop out of university. Both were bitter pills to swallow for her because she had dreams for him once he graduated. Kasiva also realised that Leonard’s coming out would also put her in the line of a lot of criticism and being ostracised. However, she knew full well that she was not going to go through another six months or more of mental and emotional torture.
“I realised I loved him. I always loved him. And I told him that I didn’t look at him for who he slept with, but I looked at him as my son,” she recollects. She wanted her son(s) to be able to approach her with anything. In true Kasiva form, she laid down the questions again. She even asked Leonard whether he was dating. At the time he wasn’t, but she remembers him telling her that he’d let her know if there was anyone on the cards.
As I sat there listening to Kasiva, I remembered another friend who came out to both her parents and both were in full support of their daughter’s queer identity. There are many queer Kenyans who crave that kind of support from their parents or even friends. Unfortunately, the Kasiva’s of this world are still few and far between. I marvelled at Kasiva’s 180-degree turn. Their relationship is warm, Leonard is now her right-hand-man, her go-to-guy and more importantly her friend.
In accepting Leonard, Kasiva wonders what she was really scared of. Was it because he chose to drop out of school or was it about his sexuality? Was it because of what people would have thought or had her worst fear been realised? Did she blame herself for the many ‘red flags’ that she ignored?
Kasiva and Leonard’s journey is a blend of the biblical prodigal son without the demand an inheritance (and with a mother instead of a father obviously), but a request for acceptance. It was like the runaway Jacob getting back to his father Isaac or Joseph reuniting with his father Jacob. In ‘finding’ her son, Kasiva opened herself to a whole new world of activism and a whole new community of friends.
However, this has not been an easy process for her. This has exposed her to the politics of the queer community, which at times left Leonard holding the short end of the stick because of his work in the activists’ space. In those initials days, she admits that her feelings towards the gay community swung like a pendulum.
I learnt at a conference a few years ago that when an African comes out as gay/queer, they come out with their whole family. With Leonard’s sexuality being an open book now, and with him being back home, the rejection squarely kicked in. Kasiva was ostracized by relatives, friends, neighbours, church members, fellow business people, the whole lot! She had not realised what she had signed up for by openly standing in support of her son. She also feared for her family’s security at the home in the Dagoretti area.
“Nobody wanted to identify with me. I would go to the market to buy vegetables or to the butchery to buy meat and the moment I would turn my back, people would start laughing.” The pain stigma returned anew, this time, worse than those years ago with her sister.
In the years gone by, her relationship with Leonard has grown from strength to strength. “I am so happy that he came out as gay and decided to live as a gay man in Kenya. I’d be more worried if he came out as gay and he was away from me. I can see him happy, I can check on him and I have been able to see him transform.
“I’d like to encourage parents to embrace their children. Talk to them about what they feel about their orientation; let’s be open to our children. Let us not put barriers to communication.”
Kasiva has severed relationships with individuals who seem spiteful towards her and her children. The accusations have been levelled at the whole family, insinuating that they are in the business of recruiting young people into homosexuality.
“I wish we could have honest discussions within our churches. My bishop has been supportive of me, even calling me during the absence to find out why I had kept away from the church,” she says. “The problem, I think, is with the congregants more, the ones who are trying to prove they are ‘holy’.”
The church still plays a pivotal role in Kasiva’s life. Her faith has become more personal. “We need to practise what we preach, we need to practise love, preach love and loving everyone and not judging anybody. We do not know until such a time when God comes who is living right and who is living wrong.”
Kasiva doesn’t trust easily. She has now kept a handful of friends and I understand why. She has been betrayed too many times. When things were really rough, the only people who stood by her were Leonard’s siblings. She would break down before them often. Those were days she didn’t have the energy to face her fellow hustlers. It was too much. I sense that she is still grappling to understand how individuals whom she called friends or relatives could burn her at the stake because she had a gay son.
“Let’s be honest. We are not all the same and let us not hate people who are different from us,” she says. “All families are not perfect, even those with a father and mother. There are families that can have also gay parents. Let us be willing to judge and accommodate the other person. Let’s try and understand that we are not all equal.”
Kasiva knows that she is not the only gay parent in the village. She and another fellow mother occasionally check on one another. However, she knows that there is more than she can offer. She would love to start a support group to help parents understand and come to terms with their children’s sexuality or identity.
She urges parents to be more open-minded and to recognise that there are many forms of love that exist out there. Unconditional support and love are the bedrock of the family, according to Kasiva. Love, love, love is what she is calling for now.
As we concluded the interview, she tells me that she is surprised that she didn’t cry. She expected to be very emotional. It had been an intense one and a half hour interview. I left feeling envy for Leonard and his siblings, respect and admiration for Kasiva. I didn’t know how to respond to her statement on the crying then. It was only later that I found the words, where I wanted to tell her she had done her tears, and now it was time to enjoy the rainbows.
Not yet Uhuru: Growing up Gay in Kenya, before the Digital Age
The High Court’s decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear.
I will never forget that weekend, over 32 years ago. It was a sunny day; I was walking on Koinange Street, and was about to get onto Kenyatta Avenue, when a vivid and amazing realization hit me, “I am gay!” I was 22 years old at the time, and had been struggling for many years prior – I had become familiar with the darkness of depression and shame at the thought of being homosexual. I had prayed desperately to God to take away the feelings I had.
I knew from a very young age I was different but never actually understood what that difference was. By Class Three or Four, my brothers – I have five in total – had given me nicknames “Ciku” or “Suku” that always had me fighting with them, since they seemed to disparagingly suggest I was engaging in roles that were supposed to be for girls. I was too young to understand any of this at the time. But as I grew up and went into high school I completely got lost when my male peers started having discussion about girls. I could not understand their excitement and strategies on how they would get their first kisses or hugs. My lack of comprehension of what my peers were going through began a deep fear in me that there was something terribly wrong with me. I pretended with my friends that I understood their conversations but I failed to catch this wave of pubescent excitement.
It was not until I got into college, and luckily took a class in human sexuality, that I finally understood that I was part of the sexuality spectrum that included same-gender attraction. This realization was liberating, albeit for a very short period, because once I actually understood what this meant for me, my understanding of my family, my culture, religion, friends and everything I held dear to my life, I became petrified. I was barely 21 and was about to start a very challenging journey of shame and refusal at what was very clearly the reality of who I was. I loved my family deeply but with the realization that I was gay, I was afraid that I would be a disappointment to my loving and supportive parents. This of course led to feeling ashamed and undeserving. The prayers to God and anybody who could hear me seemed to land on deaf ears until that fateful sunny day on K-Street. It’s kind of funny how this moment happened on a street that was known to be Nairobi’s red light district. Irony, you might say.
For reasons I still do not understand till this day, I felt a divine intervention and connection in that moment, possibly with ancestors looking out for me, that finally made me stop questioning myself and finally accept how I was born and who I was. For the next many years, I realized that my realization on that sunny day was just the beginning of a very long journey of self-discovery, a different kind of struggle that comes with claiming my space in life.
With a new acceptance of myself, I began looking for people who might be going through similar experiences. This was Nairobi before the digital age and so there was no Internet, no social media, Facebook, Twitter, or anything like that. Amazingly, there were individuals going through the same thing, and often one got introduced via networks that people had made over time. The fear slowly began to ease, and I began to be excited since I now did not see myself as a problem but as someone who belonged.
Over time some of us spent long hours at various places, including Cameo Cinema on Kenyatta Avenue, talking and getting to know one another. There was a lot of cruising around on Kenyatta Avenue, where lifelong friendships and even relationships were born. I was to later learn that these encounters were happening in other parts of the city and particular bars, clubs had begun to be spaces that individuals could meet and socialize. This is why it is important to have spaces to experience oneself with people like yourself. And all this existed in pre-digital Nairobi. Today’s society might not want to believe it, but we – queer people – have always been here. These pioneering spaces, I believe strongly, were the precursors for organized LGBQTI groups that were to start in the late 1990s and really blossom in the mid-2000s.
I left Kenya soon after for further studies, and moved to New York City. There, an HIV epidemic was in high gear, affecting primarily gay and bisexual men. While in New York, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and working within the HIV sector, I saw dozens of my gay friends die, not only from the lack of medication then, but from also the intense stigma and discrimination they received from the society at large. With my background in health, I got immersed in the responses against HIV in the city. This included facilitating HIV-positive support groups for gay and bisexual men of African descent ( African-American, Caribbean and African immigrants), and visiting hospitals to visit abandoned gay men whose families only showed up once they had passed on. I could not, and still do not understand how a family can abandon their child simply because of their sexual orientation.
It was at this time, and I believe as a result of a lot of pent up anger at the injustices I was experiencing all around me, that I came out to my family. My thinking was if they decided to abandon me (as I had seen many of my friends experience with their families) then I wanted to be in the space where I could speak directly to that, in case it ever happened. But I was surprised – and incredibly relieved – that my brothers were supportive of me even though they did not quite understand what I was experiencing at the time.
I began my journey back to Kenya in 2006 and finally settled back home in 2008. I had come back to support the beginnings of the governmental response to the HIV epidemic affecting marginalized communities including the ‘Most at Risk’ Populations (later to be renamed ‘Key Populations’ – sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who use drugs). My experience in the US provided me with some perspective to the growing voice of marginalized communities to the HIV pandemic – I felt I had something to contribute. I was also blessed to join in the growing voices of LGBTQI activists beginning to articulate and claim their rightful spaces as full citizens of this country. Eleven years later much has been achieved by LGBTQI and other marginalized communities in both the health and legal sectors.
This is why I woke up with great expectations on that Friday, May 24th 2019. I was optimistic because within this past decade, the LGBTQI community has had some incremental but significant legal wins, many of them made possible with the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution and its progressive Bill of Rights. In 2012, for example, a transgender woman was stripped naked by the police, in the full glare of the media. The court ruled her rights had been violated and ordered the government pay for damages caused. In a 2013 case that challenged the NGO Board, which had refused to register LGBTQI organizations, the High Court held that Article 27 of the Constitution protected ‘every person’ regardless of their sexual orientation. The Court further held that permitting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation would be against constitutional provisions of equality and non-discrimination.
And in another 2013 case, Baby A was born with both male and female genitalia. Hospital records indicated the baby’s sex by a question mark (?) and as a result, the child could not be issued a birth certificate or, concomitantly, an identity card. The court agreed with the petitioners that this offends the child’s rights to legal recognition, erodes its dignity and violates the right of the child not to be subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment as guaranteed in both the Constitution and the Children’s Act. It was a landmark case that provided for the first time relief for intersex persons in Kenya and ultimately led to the creation of the Intersex Task Force by the Attorney General’s office.
It was with this background of the successes the LGBTQI movements have had in their engagement with the judiciary, which gave me hope that early Friday morning. But halfway through the reading of the judgment, it became clear to all around that things were not going well. When the judges stated that majority views – ‘public opinion’ – must at times prevail in rulings such as this, we knew the case was lost. The judgment made it clear that in Kenya, the existing Victorian-era colonial penal codes are here to stay.
This decision brought up many emotions for me as a gay man over the age of 50. The High Court’s conservative negative ruling basically invalidating the existence of LGBT people in Kenya was not only a body blow to many LGBTQ individuals in Kenya, but truly had me going back to 32 years ago, where shame and self-hate ruled my life. To be told, officially, by your own country, that you do not matter and in fact you do not exist and your issues are not real, is very difficult to hear. The ruling seemed to not address the pertinent issues brought up by the petition but used as a platform to preach to queer Kenyans about Kenya’s cultural and religious values, things that were simply not being challenged in the court.
The reaction of the LGBQTI community has been one of devastation. We are part of this country. We work and contribute to the nation’s development. We will continue to challenge laws and a society that is intent on excluding us from our rightful place as citizens of this country. We have however shown great dignity and resolve and intend to continue our long journey for recognition, the same as has happened in other struggles in the past, including for our own country’s independence. Our uhuru will come.
Genesis: A Revolutionary Dance
I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley. I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.
A friend comes up to me and tries to convince me how art is unnecessary:
A luxury for First World countries, but apparently for us who are still developing,
It is only hindering
Unlike the Sciences, business studies, and engineering which are actually Doing Something
“Building”, according to him,
“The arts are simply a frivolous pastime”
And I should have known by his first line, it was already past time to shut down his lip
Damn. The whiteness runs deep
I do not understand whether it is extremely sad or deeply infuriating:
This heavily colonized way of thinking
Erasing chunks of history
Dumbing down my destiny to unnecessary
You see, I am here to tell story
And in this story, this type of thinking is my enemy, choosing to unsee my poetry
Telling me as a black African woman I should put my mind to better use
As if I do not use the tears and injustices against my people as a muse
To speak to what we could be above and beyond what we are
As if dance, poetry, song, and story are not the only balm working towards healing continental scars
As if the sky is anything but dark at night without the stars
If you come at me with art is unnecessary, more so in a developing country
Ayii yawah! May the ancestors judge you accordingly!
Because you have not done the work to know your history
And one simply has no right to dismiss art as inconsequential to the freedom fight
So today I bring you the forgotten histories
Like the griots who have come before me
From the beginning: Genesis
If God created the world with words, then creation lies on the tips of our tongues
Revolution sits in wait for a song to be sung
A poem to reiterate how freedom has now come
In the early 1960s, 300 years after the Dutch subjugated South Africa
A man known as apartheid’s father, Hendrick Verwoerd, became prime minister
The earth wailed for this broken nation
In this period of black subjugation, oppression, degradation, and shattered dreams of emancipation
One man, Vuyisile Mini, composed one song to a silent symphony
The ground responded collectively…
Bringing in the people’s harmony,
“Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd”
And the people collected the song and started singing, “Ndondemnyama ve Verwoerd-
Watch out Verwoerd, the black man is coming! Your days are over.”
Reiterated decades later by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela
The song became the people’s prayer:
Chanted on lips, music the tool of power whispered through chattering teeth
Vuyisile Mini was named a rebel organizer and was sentenced to death by the apartheid powers
They say he died, head held high… a martyr
Singing, “Ndonemnyama ve Verwoerd” with fire
And this is what music does for the revolution
It is power on the lips of children
Ask the sons and daughters of South Africa as they sing,
“Freedom is coming! Tomorrow!”
Song is power, “Amandla!”
In the early 1940s, two decades after the Harlem renaissance of the 20s
Led by black poets, jazz musicians, and writers in American society,
Leopold Senghor sat in his room writing poetry
After two years in Nazi concentration camps, captured while fighting French wars
He now armed himself with African words
Having received the highest distinction as an African in French education
This man who would become the first Senegalese president did not simply sit in his achievement
Instead he wrote poetry
Critiquing the Frenchman’s philosophy
Questioning the idea that Africans have no civilized culture or history
Mourning assimilation’s intention to eradicate the collective African memory
This one man whose civilization and history was considered crude sparked into existence the continental movement known as Negritude
Black Self-love. A whole damn mood!
In 1910 colonial Kenya
Lived a priestess from the people of the Kamba known as Syotuna
When she was younger, she had been a warrior
But now a widow, age had begun to catch up with her
But still within her was the spirit of a fighter, her soul burned fire
The colonial regime had driven her people out of their lands
Hiking up taxes, tying their hands
Forcing them to slave their way for some white man’s pay day
Syotuna’s spirit could not simply sit and wait
So she challenged her people’s predetermined complacent fate
Choosing to fight for her people instead of leaving it to chance
Her weapon of choice, as unconventional as it sounds: Dance
The Kilumi dance was sacred to the Kamba women’s history
Syotuna realized she could use it to weaponize her stories
So she danced, sang, and chanted her memories
Reminding her people of their past warrior glories
Spitting on the colonial regime’s atrocities
Freeing her people from their mental slaveries
Soon the dance of Kilumi began to pick across the lands as children and women attempted to mimic
Syotuna’s thrusting hips, so free and unbridled
The colonizers called it demonic
And the ancestors must have laughed at this fearful tactic
The more they danced, the more the Kamba rebelled
The white man’s fear propelled their last move:
Syotuna was exiled
But not before the revolution of the Kilumi dance spread into the hearts and minds of the young Kamba revolutionaries left behind
If I were to sit around this fire and tell you the stories of all the artist revolutionaries throughout our collective history from the beginning,
We would spend eternity
So for now I merely greet you in the name of these and others from our ancestry.
I greet you in the name of another warrior dancer, Mekatilili.
I greet you in the name of another music freedom fighter, Fela Kuti.
I greet you in the name of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Micere Mugo, Thomas Mapfumo, and Bob Marley.
I greet you in the name of dance, song, story, and poetry.
I greet you in the name of revolutionary history.
I greet you in the name of Love.
The Kenyan Media and the Queer Stories Of Our Lives
I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.
My earliest encounter of the word homosexuality in the Kenyan press was in the 1980s and 1990s thanks to the magazines Drum and True Love, which were published out of South Africa at the time. There was the Dear Dolly advice section, which offered advice on relationships and what I thought then were ‘adult’ things. The mainstream press occasionally carried out an ‘expose’ on areas of Mombasa Island that were notorious for homosexual activities. When it came to TV, I remember there was a couple of male sex workers who were used as the standard representation of all things gay. This seemed to suit the narrative that all gays were sex workers and effeminate. Any queer reporting had to be sensational, and inevitably leading to an AIDS-related life or death.
Even today, in most cases, whenever there is a ‘gay issue’ that cannot be avoided, the pictures used in the local media will be of cut-off jean shorts or the most dramatic photo that can be found off the wires. It’s all aimed at creating the ‘hawa watu’ (these people) feeling. ‘Gayism’ – a term that doesn’t exist in the English language until our newsrooms birthed it – is rarely portrayed in a way that normalises same-sex relationship or depicts queers’ identities in a positive way.
I cringe when I remember the Standard’s coverage of the UK-based Kenyan gay couple who got married back in 2009. Once the story was picked up by other media houses, they hot-footed to the unsuspecting parent’s home in Murang’a, and sought a reaction that was anything but shocking. No one really cared to ask whether she even knew what homosexuality was.
Do we ask the same of women in heterosexual relationships?
“The responsibility for the news rests with consumers as well as producers, or rather when we accept and repeat statements, we too become producers of the beliefs that shape this world. It behoves us to do so with care.” The majority of the media houses are guilty of regurgitation of the lie that homosexuality is illegal and that Repeal 162 was about gay marriage. This has not stopped the public to from asking the same media houses: ‘if homosexuality is illegal, then why are gay people allowed to walk around freely in the country?’ The gay marriage line has kept being weaved into stories even after the petitioners of the case repeatedly stated the case was not about marriage. Sadly, we have become a public that simply consumes without question. Media audiences in Kenya are severely malnourished! There is a lot more reporting than real journalism from our media houses. One might even say there is a lot more misreporting than reporting taking place. And this extends beyond ‘hawa watu’ issues.
Sadly, many notable stories on LGBTQ Kenyans or allies are falling off the radar of our media houses and being picked up by the foreign press. I must say the Daily Nation is in the habit of covering LGBTQ Kenyan stories through news agencies like AFP. I could be wrong but I have not seen a local interview done with Rafiki film director Wanuri Kahiu on any local platform. The film remains banned in Kenya. Another banned film is Stories Of Our Lives, and producer Jim Chuchu told me that no local media house approached their team for an interview even as the movie was receiving accolades and screenings at film festivals across the globe. There are writers who are getting recognised for the queer literature that is being produced in this country. Junior Nyong’o’s non-binary but very stylish fashion sense has led to questions about his sexuality, instead of being applauded for its uniqueness. They aren’t even letting him shine! There are visual artists whose work portrays queerness in a way that celebrates us as Kenyans. Work is being created that is showcasing our varied tapestry as a people and narratives being created that are ours, Kenyan. But journalists who have been trained to report on the issues by LGBTQ activists point the finger at their editors and editors in turn are in fear of the media owners. Plus, there is also the fear that covering a good queer story or even humanising a queer might be seen as an assertion of queerness. And what is wrong with that? Why can’t stories be told without being moralised? Doesn’t the Kenyan reader, listener or viewer deserve the right to make their own judgement?
Chinua Achebe in his essay, Spelling Our Proper Name, says, ‘The telling of the story of black (insert LGBTQ) people in our time, and for a considerable period has been self-appointed responsibility of white (insert patriarchy or moralists) people and they have done it to suit a white (insert patriarchy or moralists again) purpose, naturally. That must change and is indeed beginning to change, but not without resistance or even hostility. So much psychological, political and economic interest is vested in the negative change. The reason is simple. If you are going to enslave or colonize somebody, you are not going to write a glowing report about either him before or after. Rather you will uncover or invent terrible stories about him so that your act of brigandage will become easy for you to live with. ‘
Our media for many years was lauded for being the most vibrant, ‘free’, daring at one time, and most professional in the region. And many editors, journalists and even photographers paid the price, some with their lives, for choosing to fight with the pen and protect the integrity of the fourth estate. Fortunately, we no longer see arguments about homosexuality being un-African or a western import, because ‘hawa watu’ are us, Kenyans of the soil. It is increasingly difficult to sustain the ‘western influence’ argument. There are fewer images of stereotypical gay bodies used to depict gay narratives. There is more discourse. However, it needs to be a discourse that honours the strength of the Constitution and the dynamism of our Kenyan human-ness. I hope that soon when I encounter media coverage of LGBTQ issues, it will recognise and acknowledge that there isn’t one single narrative to our ‘gayism’, which actually isn’t even a proper word.
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